Health Care Reform, Reconciliation, and the Role of the Senate: Some Wise Counsel from Key Democrats

Cite this Article
Thomas A. Lambert, Health Care Reform, Reconciliation, and the Role of the Senate: Some Wise Counsel from Key Democrats, Truth on the Market (February 28, 2010),

Well, it looks like Congress is going to attempt to enact the Senate’s health care bill using the reconciliation process. President Obama certainly suggested as much in Thursday’s Health Care Summit, downplaying the significance of such a move and suggesting it may be necessary in order to “move forward.”

First, he said to Senator McCain:

You know, this issue of reconciliation has been brought up. Again, I think the American people aren’t always all that interested in procedures inside the Senate. I do think that they want a vote on how we’re going to move this forward. And, you know, I think most Americans think that a majority vote makes sense, but I also think that this is an issue that could be bridged if we can arrive at some agreement on ways to move forward.

I interpret that as, “Agree with us, or we’ll pursue this using reconciliation. Americans won’t mind.” That also was the thrust of the President’s closing remarks, where he said:

[T]he question that I’m going to ask myself and I ask of all of you is, is there enough serious effort that in a month’s time or a few weeks’ time or six weeks’ time we could actually resolve something? And if we can’t, then I think we’ve got to go ahead and make some decisions, and then that’s what elections are for. We have honest disagreements about — about the vision for the country and we’ll go ahead and test those out over the next several months till November. All right?

This is most unfortunate. Reconciliation — the process by which budget-related bills can be approved without threat of a filibuster (and thus without winning the support of at least 60 Senators) — moves the Senate away from its constitutional role as a moderating, consensus-building check on the other two entities that must approve legislation, the House of Representatives and the President. While the House and the President are designed to respond to majority impulses, the Senate is explicitly designed not to work that way; otherwise, California, with its 38 million people, wouldn’t have the same voting power as Wyoming, with its population of 540,000. If the Senate transforms itself into what is effectively a second House of Representatives for this piece of non-budget legislation (which, somewhat ironically, is actually opposed by a majority of Americans) then what’s to stop it from doing so on any future bill? The Senate will no longer be the Senate.

But don’t just take my word for it. Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, who defined the narrow contours of the reconciliation process in the so-called “Byrd Rule,” adamantly insists that the process is inappropriate for sweeping social legislation like the pending health care reform bill. On April 2, 2009, he wrote the following to his Senate colleagues:

I oppose using the budget reconciliation process to pass health care reform and climate change legislation. Such a proposal would violate the intent and spirit of the budget process, and do serious injury to the Constitutional role of the Senate.

As one of the authors of the reconciliation process, I can tell you that the ironclad parliamentary procedures it authorizes were never intended for this purpose. Reconciliation was intended to adjust revenue and spending levels in order to reduce deficits. It was not designed to cut taxes. It was not designed to create a new climate and energy regime, and certainly not to restructure the entire health care system.

Just last week, Senator Byrd reiterated his position in another “Dear Colleague” letter. In that letter, he insisted that any attempt to use reconciliation to enact health care reform would be “grossly misguided.”

Senator Byrd isn’t the only Democrat who recognizes the importance of maintaining the Senate’s supramajority rule for important social legislation. Friday afternoon, I spent several hours reading through the Congressional Record from May 10, 2005 to May 25, 2005, a period during which the then-Republican majority leadership in the Senate was threatening to eliminate the supramajority requirement for approving judicial nominees. A number of Democratic senators — including Senators Bayh, Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Durbin, Feingold, Feinstein, Harkin, Kohl, Lautenberg, Leahy, Murray, Nelson, Reid, and Schumer — spoke eloquently and passionately about the Senate’s crucial and constitutionally prescribed role as a non-majoritarian body. Their characterization of the Senate’s special role was spot on.

Here’s some of what they had to say (emphasis added, of course):


It is the Senate where the Founding Fathers established a repository of checks and balances. It is not like the House of Representatives where the majority leader or the Speaker can snap his fingers and get what he wants. Here we work many times by unanimous consent where you need all 100 Senators to go along. In some instances, we work where 67 votes are needed, in some with 60, and in most with 51. But the reason we don’t always work by majority rule is very simple. On important issues, the Founding Fathers wanted — and they were correct in my judgment — that the slimmest majority should not always govern. When it comes to vital issues, that is what they wanted.

The Senate is not a majoritarian body. My good friend from Utah spoke. He represents about two million people in Utah. I represent 19 million in New York State. We have the same vote. You could have 51 votes for a judge on this floor that represents 21 percent of the American people. So the bottom line is very simple. This has not always been a 50.1 to 49.9 body. It has been a body that has had to work by its rules and by the Founding Fathers’ intent. Even when you are in the majority, you have to reach out and meet not all, not most, but some of the concerns of the minority.



For further analysis, let’s look at Robert Caro. He is a noted historian and Pulitzer Prize winner, and he said this at a meeting I attended. He spoke about the history of the filibuster. He made a point about its legacy that was important. He noted that when legislation is supported by the majority of Americans, it eventually overcomes a filibuster’s delay, as a public protest far outweighs any Senator’s appetite to filibuster.

But when legislation only has the support of the minority, the filibuster slows the legislation-prevents a Senator from ramming it through, and gives the American people enough time to join the opposition. Mr. President, the right to extended debate is never more important than when one party controls Congress and the White House. In these cases, the filibuster serves as a check on power and preserves our limited government. …

For 200 years, we have had the right to extended debate. It is not some ” procedural gimmick.” It is within the vision of the Founding Fathers of this country. They did it; we didn’t do it. They established a government so that no one person and no single party could have total control.

Some in this Chamber want to throw out 214 years of Senate history in the quest for absolute power. They want to do away with Mr. Smith, as depicted in that great movie, being able to come to Washington. They want to do away with the filibuster. They think they are wiser than our Founding Fathers. I doubt that is true.



One of the reasons the extended debate rule is so important is because it forces us to sit down and negotiate with one another, not because we want to but because we have to. I have helped pass many pieces of legislation in my 24 years here, both as a majority and minority Member of this institution. I have never helped pass a single bill worth talking about that didn’t have a Republican as a lead cosponsor. I don’t know of a single piece of legislation here that didn’t have a Republican and a Democrat in the lead. We need to sit down and work with each other. The rules of this institution have required that. That is why we exist. Why have a bicameral legislative body, two Chambers? What were the Framers thinking about 218 years ago? They understood the possibility of a tyranny of the majority. And yet, they fully endorsed the idea that in a democratic process, there ought to be a legislative body where the majority would rule.

So the House of Representatives was created to guarantee the rights of the majority would prevail. But they also understood there were dangers inherent in that, and that there ought to be as part of that legislative process another institution that would serve as a cooling environment for the passions of the day. So the Framers … sat down and said: There is a danger if we don’t adopt a separate institution as part of the legislative branch where the rights of the minority will also prevail, where you must listen to the other side in a democracy, pay attention to the other side.


SENATOR JOE BIDEN, May 23, 2005:

At its core, the filibuster is not about stopping a nominee or a bill, it is about compromise and moderation. That is why the Founders put unlimited debate in. When you have to-and I have never conducted a filibuster-but if I did, the purpose would be that you have to deal with me as one Senator. It does not mean I get my way. It means you may have to compromise. You may have to see my side of the argument. That is what it is about, engendering compromise and moderation.

Ladies and gentlemen, the nuclear option extinguishes the power of Independents and moderates in this Senate. That is it. They are done. Moderates are important only if you need to get 60 votes to satisfy cloture. They are much less important if you need only 50 votes. I understand the frustration of our Republican colleagues. I have been here 32 years, most of the time in the majority. Whenever you are in the majority, it is frustrating to see the other side block a bill or a nominee you support. I have walked in your shoes, and I get it. …

I say to my friends on the Republican side: You may own the field right now, but you won’t own it forever. I pray God when the Democrats take back control, we don’t make the kind of naked power grab you are doing. But I am afraid you will teach my new colleagues the wrong lessons.


Much, much, much more below the fold. Please read it — it’s important and, well, a little fun!


The filibuster is not a procedural gimmick. The filibuster is an important check on executive power and part of every Senator’s right to free speech in the Senate. Robert Byrd, on Thursday, from this desk right behind mine, talked about free speech.

Senator Robert Byrd has been in the [Congress] for approximately 25 percent of the time this country has existed. … He should know something about free speech. He was here on the Senate floor when the great Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican Senator from Maine, talked about the value of free speech in the Senate. He was in the Senate when the Republican Howard Baker talked about the importance of the filibuster in protecting our democracy. A gimmick? I think not.

Senator Byrd was in the Senate when the debate over civil rights took place. I heard Barack Obama upstairs with the press corps say: Isn’t it interesting, the filibuster was used against African Americans but they worked around it and prevailed in spite of it. They didn’t move to change the rules in the middle of the game.

Senator Robert Byrd was here when Dan Inouye, the Medal of Honor winner from Hawaii, a new Senator, came to the floor, and as an Asian American whose friends and family were put in internment camps during the Second World War, spoke on the Senate floor about what it means to be a minority and how the filibuster should be available to protect the minority. A gimmick? I think not.

Over the years, the filibuster has proven to be an important tool of moderation and consensus, which partly explains why the Republican leadership is opposed to it. They aren’t interested in moderation. They are only interested in advancing their right-wing, radical political agenda, an agenda being driven by the people who are saying we are filibustering against people of faith.



The Constitution did not set up the Senate to be a majoritarian body. … The Constitution allows citizens from smaller States who could be easily outvoted in a majoritarian legislature such as the House to have the same power in the Senate as citizens of larger States. This is not a minor provision, as the Presiding Officer knows. The Founders clearly didn’t think so because — this is amazing — they made it the only provision in the Constitution that cannot be amended. No State can give up its equal representation in the Senate without its consent. You can’t do a constitutional amendment to change that. They designed the Senate to be an important bulwark against majoritarian pressure. …

The Framers intended the Senate to act as a check on the whims of the majority, not to facilitate them. I will not pretend the Senate has always been on the right side of history. At times, most notably during the great civil rights debates of the 1950s and 1960s, Senators used the powers given them to block vital, majority-supported legislation. But notwithstanding those dark moments, the Senate has also served throughout the history of this Republic as a place where individuals with different beliefs and goals were forced to come together to work for the common good.

By empowering the minority, the Framers created a body that has served this country well. To continue down the road we are on now will be to irretrievably change the very character of the Senate and irretrievably weaken the institution. Without the unique feature of extended debate, the Senate will be much less able to stand up to the President or to cool the passions of the explicitly majoritarian House.



If this is allowed to happen — if the Republican leadership insists on enforcing the nuclear option — the Senate becomes ipso facto the House of Representatives, where the majority rules supreme and the party in power can dominate and control the agenda with absolute power.

The Senate is meant to be different. In my talks, I often quote George Washington and point out how the Senate and House are often referred to as a cup of coffee and a saucer. The House is a cup of coffee. You drink your coffee out of the cup. If it is too hot, you pour it into the saucer — the Senate — and you cool it. The Senate is really formed on the basis that no legislation is better than bad legislation and that the debates and disagreements over judicial nominations ensures that the Senate confirms the best qualified candidates.

So the Senate is meant to be a deliberative body, and the rights of the minority, characterized by the filibuster, are purposely designed to be strong.



We are on the precipice of a crisis, a constitutional crisis. The checks and balances which have been at the core of this Republic are about to be evaporated by the nuclear option, the checks and balances which say if you get 51 percent of the vote you do not get your way 100 percent of the time. It is amazing. It is almost a temper tantrum by those on the hard right. They want their way every single time, and they will change the rules, break the rules, misread the Constitution so they will get their way. That is not becoming of the leadership of the Republican side of the aisle, nor is it becoming of this Republic. That is what we call abuse of power.



[N]o Senator has been so bold as to stand up and do what we understand the majority leader is likely to do very soon, the so-called nuclear option. Why in the history of this Chamber has no Senator ever done this? Because, frankly, it strikes at the heart of this institution. It goes to the value of the Senate in our Constitution. When the Constitution was written, the Senate was created as a different place. I served in the House of Representatives for 14 years. I was proud of that service, enjoyed it, and value the House of Representatives and its role. But it is a different chamber.

The Senate was created so the minority would always have a voice. Think about it. There are two Senators from every State, large or small. Think of the rules of the Senate from the beginning which said: No matter who you are, what Senator you may be, you can take to this floor and do as I am doing at this moment, begin a debate which cannot be closed down unless an extraordinary majority of the Senate makes that decision. . . .

Robert C. Byrd, the Senator from West Virginia, comes to the floor every day and carries our Constitution with him in his pocket. He has written a two or three-volume history of the Senate. He knows this institution better than anybody. I have listened to Senator Byrd, and I have measured the intensity of his feeling about this debate. It is hard for anyone to describe what this means to Senator Byrd. He believes what is at stake here is not just a vote on a judge. What is at stake here is the future of the Senate, the role of the issues, such as checks and balances, and I agree with him.



I have to shudder at the thought of what some of the great thinkers, the great Founders of our democracy, would say to this attempted abuse of power. Frankly, one of the best interpretations of the thoughts was offered to this Senate by Robert Caro, the great Senate historian. He wrote a letter in 2003 and he talked about the need for the Senate to maintain its history and its traditions despite popular pressures of the day and of the important role that debate and dissension plays in any discussion of judicial nominations. In particular, he wrote of his concern for the preservation of Senate tradition in the face of attempted changes by a majority run wild.
He said, in part:

In short, two centuries of history rebut any suggestion that either the language or intent of the Constitution prohibits or counsels against the use of extended debate to resist presidential authority. To the contrary, the nation’s Founders depended on the Senate’s members to stand up to a popular and powerful president. In the case of judicial appointments, the Founders specifically mandated the Senate to play an active role providing both advice and consent to the President. That shared authority was basic to the balance of powers among the branches.

I am … attempting to say as strongly as I can that in considering any modification Senators should realize they are dealing not with the particular dispute of the moment, but with the fundamental character of the Senate of the United States, and with the deeper issue of the balance of power between majority and minority rights.

Protection of minority rights has been a fundamental principle since the infancy of this democracy. It should not — in fact, it cannot — be laid to rest in this Chamber with this debate.



[T]he long-term destructive consequences triggering the nuclear option would be profound for our system of Government. For more than two centuries, Senate rules and traditions have respected the rights of the minority. That would be destroyed. For more than two centuries, thanks to those minority rights, the Senate has been a force for compromise, moderation, and reason. That would be destroyed. For more than two centuries, the minority’s power in the Senate has been essential to America’s system of checks and balances. That would be destroyed.



What they are attempting to do in this instance is really too bad. It will change this body forever. We will be an extension of the House of Representatives, where a simple majority there can determine everything.



The heart of compromise is well known: one side cannot have all that they want. Yet the essence of the so called “nuclear option” is just that — one side wins, one party wins, one majority wins full power over who will sit on the Federal bench. The other side — the other party, the minority — is left powerless, silenced by a new rule that strips the minority of all power over judges. We all know that such an outcome is the opposite of moderation, the opposite of compromise, the opposite of bipartisanship. In short, the opposite of how to get things done in a way that encourages participation on both sides of the aisle.



But especially it [rescinding the filibuster for judicial nominees] is wrong in unilaterally destroying minority protections in the Senate in order to promote one-party rule, something this Senate has never known and has never wanted. I have served in the Senate for almost 31 years. During that time, several times the Democrats were in charge of the Senate — in the majority. Several times the Republicans were. The hallmark of every leader, Republican or Democratic, was that the special minority protections of the Senate would remain. No matter who was in the majority, they believed they had as their obligation protecting the rights of the minority because that is what the Senate is all about. . . .

The Senate has its own carefully calibrated role in our system of Government. The Senate was not intended to function like the House. The Great Compromise of the Constitutional Convention more than 200 years ago was to create in the Senate a different legislative body from the House of Representatives. Those fundamental differences include equal representation for each State in accordance with article I, section 3. Thus, Vermont has equal numbers of Senators to New York or Idaho or California. The Founders intended this as a vital check. Representation in the Senate is not a function of population or based on the size of a State or its wealth.

Another key difference is the right to debate in the Senate. The filibuster is quintessentially a Senate practice. James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 63 that the Senate was intended to provide “interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens” against “illicit advantage” and the “artful misrepresentations of interested men.” It was designed and intended as a check, a balancing device, as a mechanism to promote consensus and to forge compromise.

The House of Representatives has a different and equally crucial function in our system. I respect the House and its traditions just as I respect and honor the Senate tradition. It is the Senate and only the Senate that has a special role in our legislative system to protect the rights of a minority from the divisive or intemperate acts of a headstrong majority.

This is not a country of one-party rule. I hope this country is never one of one-party rule. No democracy law exists if it is there by one-party rule. . . . I have been proud to serve here both in the majority and the minority. I remember all the times when I was here as a member of the majority party, it was constantly drummed into us at our party *S5746 caucuses, at party meetings, we have to maintain the Senate rules to protect the rights of the then minority, the Republicans.

It is amazing to me the Senate, the place that is supposed to be the conscience of our Nation, would allow a President, any President, to convince them to turn their back on precedent, on history, but also on their own rules.



We were reminded at this event today of something called the Newburg Conspiracy. What was that? That was an effort by a small group of people to persuade George Washington to begin to assume the mantle of absolute power, to, in effect, become more like a king than what had been envisioned for this new Republic, a President and a system of government with checks and balances.

In one of his greatest speeches, then General Washington repudiated the Newburg Conspiracy and memorably said that we should all stand against any effort to consolidate power. We must stand for our Republic. And that Republic, which is unique in human history, has this unusual system of checks and balances that pit different parts of the Government against one another that, from the very beginning, recognized the importance of minority rights because, after all, that is what the Senate is, a guarantor of minority rights. . . .

So we have created this rather cumbersome process of government. Sometimes people in a parliamentary system look at it and say: What is this about? You have a House of Representatives where you have majority rule, and then you have this Senate over here where people can slow things down, where they can debate, where they have something called the filibuster. It seems as if it is a little less than efficient.

Well, that is right. It is, and deliberately designed to be so, with the acute psychological understanding that every single one of us needs to be checked in the exercise of power, that despite what we may believe about our intentions and our views, not one of us has access to the absolute truth about any issue confronting us. So one of the ways we have protected the special quality of the Senate over all of these years is through unlimited debate, through the creation of rules that would make it possible for a minority to be heard, and more than that, create a supermajority for certain actions that the Constitution entrusts to the Senate, and, in particularly, the appointment of judges for lifetime tenure.

Now, why would you have a supermajority for judges? Again, I think it shows the genius of our Founders in their understanding of human nature. This is a position of such great importance, such overwhelming power and authority, that anyone who comes before this body should be able to obtain the support of 60 of our fellow Senators. It has worked well. . . .

[T]his President has come to the majority in the Senate and basically said: Change the rules. Do it the way I want it done. And I guess there were not very many voices on the other side of the aisle that acted the way previous generations of Senators have acted and said: Mr. President, we are with you. We support you. But that is a bridge too far. We cannot go there. You have to restrain yourself, Mr. President. . . .

When I was standing on the banks of the Hudson River this morning, looking at General Washington’s headquarters, thinking about the sacrifice that he and so many others made, many giving the ultimate sacrifice of their life, for this Republic-if we can keep it, as Benjamin Franklin said-I felt as though I was in a parallel universe because I knew I was going to be getting on an airplane and coming back to Washington. And I knew the Republican majority was intent upon this showdown. I knew the President had chimed in today and said he wants up-or-down votes on his nominees. And I just had to hope that maybe between now and the time we have this vote there would be enough Senators who will say: Mr. President, no. We are sorry, we cannot go there. We are going to remember our Founders. We are going to remember what made this country great. We are going to maintain the integrity of the U.S. Senate.



[T]he traditions and rules of the Senate are, frankly, in deep jeopardy. The current majority leader is threatening to annihilate over 200 years of tradition in this Senate by getting rid of our right to extended debate. The Senate that will be here as a result of this nuclear option will be a dreary, bitter, far more partisan landscape, even though it obviously prevents us from operating with any kind of consensus. It will only serve to make politics in Washington much more difficult.


SENATOR EVAN BAYH, May 23, 2005:

Very briefly, let me say what this is all about, but let me begin by saying what it is most definitely not about. This is not about the precedents and history of this body. … It is not about whether nominees get an up-or-down vote. … It is not about whether the chief executive will have his way the vast majority of the time. … This debate is not about whether or not there are ideological or partisan tests being applied to nominees. …

Mr. President, this is really about the value we, as a people, place upon consensus in a diverse society. It is about the reason that the separation of powers and the balance of powers were created by the Founders of this Republic in the first place. And it is ultimately about whether we recall our own history and the understanding of human nature itself, the occasional passions and excesses and deals of the moment that lead us to places that threaten consensus and the very social fabric of this Republic. It is about the value we place upon restraint in such moments.

Is it unreasonable to ask more than a simple majority be required for confirmation to lifetime appointments to the courts of appeal or the Supreme Court of the United States, who will render justice and interpret the most fundamental, basic framing documents of this Nation? Should something more than a bare majority be required for lifetime appointments to positions of this importance and magnitude? I believe it should.



Protecting the Senate’s minority rights might seem to go against the concept of democracy and majority rule. In reality and without the spin on this issue that the special interest groups from both extremes put on this matter, the Senate’s minority rights are part of the system of checks and balances that keep any branch of government from dominating the others.